Frank Stranzl

The Big West so far has been volatile to say the least. A 0-10 non-conference team (UC Riverside) is off to a 2-2 start in Big West play, including a win against arguably the conference’s top team, and Cal State Fullerton lost a home game to Cal Poly.

Upsets aside, Fullerton and Pacific are still the favorites to win the conference championship. But, as Pacific coach Bob Thomason said during a conference call on Wednesday, it all boils down to the conference tournament in early March.

That means if UC Riverside gets hot near the end of the season, we could see what was an 0-10 team playing in the NCAA Tournament. Cal Poly fans rejoice, every team makes the Big West tournament this season, and in such a wide-open conference, the Mustangs could sneak into the “Big Dance” come March.

Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of the Big West and an update on what’s transpired so far.

Contenders

Pacific (10-5, 1-1) ” Despite the loss to Riverside, Pacific is still the pick of the litter in the Big West. They proved Monday night who the king of the Titans is by beating Fullerton 83-74. Unlike last year, which saw the Tigers earn an at-large NCAA Tournament berth with a regular season record of 26-3, this year’s team will need the conferences automatic qualifier to participate in March Madness. That means all roads lead to the Anaheim Convention Center Arena in the second week of March.

The upside: Win vs. Texas A&M, 63-56 on Jan. 3. The Aggies were undefeated until losing to the Tigers.

The downside: A&M played a cupcake schedule and the win is hardly enough to overshadow loss to Riverside.

Swedish Star: Foreign born talent has been a staple for Pacific coach Bob Thomason, and Christian Maraker (Varberg, Sweden) is as good as they come. Maraker averages 18 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while leading the conference in free throw shooting at 88.9 percent.

Fullerton (8-5, 2-2) ” Fullerton entered the season with high expectations, but the Titans haven’t lived up to them. With no marquee wins and losses to Cal Poly, Texas-San Antonio and San Francisco, the Titans, like the Tigers, need to run the table just to maintain some hope of an at-large bid.

The upside: 20 is the magic number, the number of wins the Titans will need even to be considered an at-large team. If the Titans win-out, they have 21 wins going into the conference tournament.

The downside: The smart money says the Titans won’t walk through the remainder of Big West play unblemished.

The “Brown Factor:” Bobby and Jamal Brown, no relation but doubly effective. The Brown’s lead the team in scoring; Bobby putting in 19.5 per game and Jamal chipping in with 17.

Next Best

UC Irvine (6-8, 2-0) ” The best win of the year for a Big West school: Irvine over Stanford 79-63 on Nov. 19. However, losses to Div. II Arkansas-Monticello and Cal State Stanislaus show how volatile the Anteaters can be.

Best bet: Irvine, like the rest of the teams to be mentioned, has no chance of an at-large tournament invitation. It’s all about jockeying for position. In the Big West Conference Tournament, the top two seeds need just two wins to take the championship, making regular season success a huge advantage come March. Drop to a third or fourth seed and the Anteaters will need three wins in order to earn the conference’s automatic bid.

Cal State Northridge (6-6, 1-1) ” An upset win over USC in its first game of the season is the teams claim to fame. The Matadors played Fulleton close, losing 83-78, in their first Big West game then dispatched Riverside by 14 two nights later.

Best bet: Efevberha is sure to see some double teams in Big West play. Find a way to keep his offensive production up and the Matadors will be dangerous in the conference tournament.

Efevberha Factor: The 6’5″ guard is one of the top scorers in the conference. He’s averaging 21.7 per game. Has gone for 30-plus three times this season.

The Rest

Long Beach State (6-7, 1-1) is athletic and averages 81.8 points per game, best in the Big West. Unfortunately for the 49ers, their offensive effort is hardly matched on the other side of the floor as Long Beach ranks next-to-last in points allowed with 78.8 per game.

Cal Poly and UC Riverside are each intriguing teams. Both seem to have put their non-conference woes behind them and are currently tied for second. Cal Poly’s freshman guard tandem of Trae Clark and Chaz Thomas gives the team a pair of three-point threats and the return of highly touted freshman forward Titus Shelton must have coach Kevin Bromley excited.

Santa Barbara, amusingly chosen by ESPN personality Dick Vitale to win the Big West, is currently in last place and doesn’t have much to be excited about at this point.

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